Murder of an Immigrant Sister: The Van Wyk Case, 0621 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 6 Pg. 16

PositionVol. 50, 6 [Page 16]

50 Colo.Law. 16

Murder of an Immigrant Sister: The Van Wyk Case

Vol. 50, No. 6 [Page 16]

Colorado Lawyer

June, 2021



Some of the saddest and most disturbing criminal cases involve the exploitation of a vulnerable victim. When the perpetrator is related to the victim, the crime is doubly tragic. Such was the case in 1905, when Gerritje Haast was murdered in Yuma County, Colorado.

Discovery of a Frozen Corpse

On the morning of December 31,1905, a Dutch immigrant named Woutherje Van Wyk led her neighbors to a crude, one-room sod shack on an isolated homestead in Yuma County. The shack belonged to Mrs. Van Wyk's sister, Gerritje Haast, who lived there alone. Mrs. Van Wyk explained that she had tried to enter her sister's shack but could not get the door open. She asked the neighbors, Edwin B. Ball and his wife, to help her.

When Mrs. Ball tried the door, she had no problem opening it. Inside, she found a grim scene. Gerritje Haast lay dead on her bed, frozen. She was lying on her left side, with her arms crossed over her chest and the covers pulled over her. In the right side of her head was a bullet hole. Ms. Haast was eight months pregnant.

Mr. Ball entered the shack. From outside, Mrs. Van Wyk began calling out questions. Was there a revolver? Mr. Ball replied there was not. Was there a note? Mrs. Van Wyk accompanied this question with a gesture toward an empty can on the bedside table. When Mr. Ball searched the can, he found a manuscript inside. It read:

Have met a fellow at Parkers dam and he has left me there, and now he has been here again and has raped me and abused me. Follow him as soon as you can and bring him to the prison. Gerritje Haast. I do not know his name.[1]

A bottle of ink, a pen, and a pen holder were lying on the bedside table. Although several other containers of liquid in the shack were frozen solid, the ink in the bottle was not frozen. A revolver was later found between the bed covers.

Ms. Haast and the Van Wyks

The Van Wyks were quick to suggest that the scene seemed to indicate a suicide. But when the authorities began investigating the death, they uncovered some disturbing facts about the Van Wyks that suggested foul play.

Ms. Haast, whom the Colorado Supreme Court later described as "an untutored, weak-minded, and immoral young woman, about 25 years of age," had arrived at the Van Wyk home near Wray in December 1903.2 She'd had no money and could not speak English, so she had been entirely dependent on the Van Wyks. Soon they had her performing most of the hard labor on their ranch, dressed in a ranch hand's clothing.

In Holland, Ms. Haast had borne a child fathered by her sister's husband, Gerrit J. Van Wyk, who was decades older than his sister-in-law. On the Yuma County ranch, their intimacy continued. Witnesses described seeing Mr. Van Wyk with his arms around her waist, or her sitting in his lap. About nine months after she arrived at the ranch, Ms. Haast gave birth to her second child, presumably also fathered by Mr. Van Wyk. Disgusted by these events, Mrs. Van Wyk told a neighbor that she "intended to get rid of" her sister.3

And there were other disturbing reports. On one occasion Mr. Van Wyk knocked Ms. Haast down with a tamping post, complaining that she had spoiled a post hole. And Mrs. Van Wyk once assaulted her sister so severely that she had to seek her neighbors' protection.

Ms. Haast's Homestead

Like many immigrants, Ms. Haast was a homesteader. She received her parcel in 1904, but she made no immediate improvements. Then, in November 1905, shortly before her death, Mr. Van Wyk and another man erected a single-room sod shack in an isolated location on the site, on the far side of a canyon where it could not be seen by her neighbors. This was the "cheerless home," as the Colorado Supreme Court called it, where she was expected to give birth to her third child.4

Mrs. Van Wyk escorted her sister to the newly constructed shack in December 1905 and left her there. Ms. Haast stayed just one week and then walked back to the Van Wyks' house. Mrs. Van Wyk led her back to the shack. She did not tell any of Ms. Haast's neighbors that her very pregnant, mentally challenged sister was living there.

Life Insurance and a Will

The summer before Ms. Haast sat shivering in her shack, the Van Wyks occupied themselves with other matters. They obtained $8,000 worth of life insurance on Ms. Haast's life, with Mrs. Van Wyk as the beneficiary. Another insurance company initially declined their application, reasoning that Ms. Haast was an unwed mother of two children and that her mother had died of consumption. The Van Wyks went to the agent's office in Wray and told him they had made a mistake in using the word "consumption." This appears to have prompted the company to issue a second policy, for an additional $10,000.5

In December 1905, Ms. Haast also signed a last will and testament The will was in English, a language she could not speak or understand. It disinherited her children and left all her worldly goods to her sister, Mrs. Van Wyk.


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